Productivity

Mindscope, version 1.5

Several years ago, I wrote about a great iPad app called Mindscope (original article here). The developer calls Mindscope “The Mind Mapping Outliner.” That’s a pretty apt description. The app hadn’t been updated in almost three years, and I was wondering if it were abandoned. But wait, just when things were looking dire, version 1.5 was released earlier this week.

I’m not going to post any screen shots here, because they simply don’t do Mindscope justice. I suggest going to the webpage for Mindscope and watching the demonstration video — several times since things move pretty quickly.

Since the list of new features doesn’t appear on the website for Mindscope, I’m pulling the list from the AppStore:

— iPhone & iPad compatible —

That’s right, Mindscope now runs on your iPhone as well for when you’re on the go! It’s really useful for taking notes on the go. Especially because of…

— iCloud sync —

Your Mindscope entries can now be stored in iCloud. If you do so, it will sync between your iPhone and your iPad! If there are any problems, please let me know! I have spent many hours testing and polishing this – it should Just Work.

Note that if you don’t want to use this, you also have the option to simply work locally (like before).

The entries are synced when you have Internet and are primarily updated when you first open up the app. If you’ve made a change on your other device that you aren’t seeing yet, trying exiting and re-entering.

— Bluetooth keyboard fix —

Bluetooth keyboards now work great again with Mindscope! Creating entries used to not work when a Bluetooth keyboard was connected. This has now been fixed, in fact, I’ve gone even further and added a ton of…

— Keyboard shortcuts —

Many, MANY new keyboard shortcuts makes using Mindscope with a keyboard simply awesome. Hold down the Cmd key on your keyboard to see them all. Everything from navigating to creating to editing to styling can now be done via keyboard. It’s AWESOME, if I do say so myself (and I do).

— New action side menu —

Instead of a popup, an action bar now slides in when highlighting entries – this makes life way easier especially on the iPhone, since this way the action buttons won’t pop up under your finger, and also there is room for all the actions.

— Massive internal refactoring & rewrite in Swift —

This one you won’t see much of on the outside, but I’ve rewritten many parts of the app in Swift to provide a better foundation for The Future.

Anyway, check Mindscope out. It is really fun to use.

Bullet Journal Journal!

The Bullet Journal notebook is a fine quality journal from Leuchtturm1917.

The Bullet Journal notebook is a fine quality journal from Leuchtturm1917.

I mentioned in this recent post that there is now available an actual Bullet Journal journal. So, of course, I had to order a copy, which arrived by mail the other day. It is manufactured by Leuchtturm1917, so the quality is evident to the touch. “Bullet Journal” is embossed on the cover, which is a cool but completely useless feature.

The features that might be handy for bullet journaling include the following:

  • A key to bullet journal signifiers. The common, recommended ones are printed in the key, and there are plenty of blank spaces for adding your own custom signifiers.
  • The first four pages are dedicated to the Index. (I don’t keep an index in my bullet journals.)
  • The next four pages are dedicated to the Future Log. (Another bullet journal feature I have not used in the past.)
  • The pages are already numbered.
  • There are three bookmarks for quick access to a variety of sections of the journal.
  • The last eight pages include instructions/suggestions for keeping a bullet journal.
The inside front cover of the Bullet Journal journal features a key to bullet journal signifiers.

The inside front cover of the Bullet Journal journal features a key to bullet journal signifiers.

The journal pages are dotted grids, which work fine for bullet journaling, though I prefer lined grids. The notebook includes a standard elastic enclosure band and a gusseted pocket.

The beauty of bullet journaling is how adaptable it is, including the fact that you can use almost any kind of notebook for your rapid logging. So you do NOT need this journal. At $20 it is a little pricey, but no more than any other Leuchtturm1917 notebook. That said, this is a fine piece of stationery that might inspire you to tackle the bullet journal system and stick with it.

Further ruminations on the spark file

Editing a spark note in Daedalus Touch for the iPad.

Editing a spark note in Daedalus Touch for the iPad.

I wrote about creating a spark file system the other day. As is usually the case with new information management processes that interest me, I put the cart before the horse, working on a software solution before actually thinking through what the results should be. I took a breath after composing that article to consider what I want to actually DO with a spark file. How do the contents of such a file differ from what I would keep in other note-taking systems I use?

I came up with the following concepts for my spark file, some of which were already percolating while writing the previous article:

  • I do not need or want any categorization beyond keeping the notes in chronological order. Any other categorization might influence how I express the idea. For example, if I start out a note regarding the early days of Yellowstone National Park and classify it non-fiction, it may be less likely that I would consider a novel on the same topic. This would be true as I was writing the note, and months later as I review the note.
  • This is a file just for ideas and guesses (what Steven Johnson calls hunches). I’m not putting any data in this file, no addresses or passwords or order confirmation numbers. What goes in the file comes from my brain only, with the exception of quotations, which might help illuminate an idea.
  • I can refer to other sources. For example, if an article about how we all have Neanderthal DNA in our genes gives me the idea of a new dating service called PrimeMates.Com, which matches people with ideal dates based on their inner cavemen (kind of like Meyers-Briggs but with clubs and hairy chests), then it is okay to put a link to that article in the note.
  • I must not be critical of the ideas I put into this file at the time I create them. Critical notes upon future review will be good practice, I think.

Having crystallized the concept of the spark file a little more solidly, I was then able to return to finding a solution for managing this file with the confidence that I have a better notion of what I’m doing. If you recall from the previous article, the software system had four requirements:

  1. Universal access for editing, reviewing and creating.
  2. Capturing ideas must be quick and easy.
  3. Ability to read the entire set of ideas from start to finish in one scrolling document.
  4. Writing in the editor must be as close to a full word-processor experience as possible.

With those requirements in mind, I have decided to use the Ulysses III-Daedalus combination from The Soulmen. Ulysses is a terrific plain text editor for the Mac that uses Markdown language for formatting text. With Ulysses, you create groups of sheets, which correlates to folders and documents in an app like Scrivener. You can save these groups of sheets in one of three places: locally on your Mac, on iCloud (Apple’s version of Dropbox), or on your iPad in the companion app Daedalus (which is also synch’d via iCloud). In the navigator pane to the left, which Ulysses calls the Library, your groups are sorted by where they are located, so you have a section for your Daedalus materials. (In Daedalus, a group is called a stack, so I’m switching nomenclature — yes, yes, I know it is confusing.) So you have a local copy of your Daedalus stacks in Ulysses on your Mac, which synchronizes beautifully between the two apps.

Ulysses III with my Spark Notes stack selected.

Ulysses III with my Spark Notes stack selected.

I’ve created a stack called Spark Notes, which I can access equally well on either of my two MacBooks and my iPad. I create a new sheet for each idea I want to record. This atomization of my spark file may seem to go against my requirements, but it works fine with Ulysses, because I can see all the sheets concatenated into one view just by selecting all of them (see the screenshot below).

Four spark notes selected and view-able as "one" document in Ulysses.

Four spark notes selected and view-able as “one” document in Ulysses.

You can also easily export all the sheets in one stack to a single document in many formats, so there is no lock-in to this system. Daedalus on the iPad provides a little different user experience than this, but one that works well for a tablet. When you select a stack, you drill down to the sheet level, and you can leaf through your sheets like flipping through pages of a book.

An open sheet, part of a stack in Daedalus for iPad.

An open sheet, part of a stack in Daedalus for iPad.

There is one hole in this system, which is how to incorporate my Windows PC at work? I can’t access my spark file from the PC, but I can easily write any brainstorms I may have in my favorite text editor for PC, Notetab. I save the .txt file to Dropbox, and when I get the chance I can just drag it into the Spark Notes stack in Ulysses where it seamlessly becomes just another sheet.

A few comments: There are limitations on the sheets you create in Ulysses for use on Daedalus. These mostly relate to the markup you can use with your text, as the iPad app doesn’t have the powerful features of the Mac app. But I don’t need those features for my Spark Notes stack, so it isn’t a big deal. And The Soulmen are working on a Ulysses app for the iPad, which should make this system even more graceful and efficient.

 

Ruminations on the idea of a spark file

Thanks to a post over on David Pottinger’s blog, Steps & Leaps,* I was reminded of the concept of the spark file, the invention of writer Steven Johnson. As Johnson describes it, the spark file is “a single document where I keep all my hunches: ideas for articles, speeches, software features, startups, ways of framing a chapter I know I’m going to write, even whole books…. There’s no organizing principle to it, no taxonomy–just a chronological list of semi-random ideas that I’ve managed to capture before I forgot them.”

The key to the effectiveness of this exercise, according to Johnson, is periodically reading the spark file from start to finish.

“I end up seeing new connections that hadn’t occurred to me the first (or fifth) time around,” he writes. “Sure, I end up reading over many hunches that never went anywhere, but there are almost always little sparks that I’d forgotten that suddenly seem more promising. And it’s always encouraging to see the hunches that turned into fully-realized projects or even entire books.”

This is a tantalizing idea, not unlike the bullet journal in some ways. It’s a single place to record data. In the bullet journal you rapid log events, tasks and random information. In the spark file you keep ideas that you don’t want to forget, at least not now. To get the most out of either system, you need to review the contents on a regular basis, the bullet journal probably more frequently than the spark file.

But there are also crucial differences in the two systems. In a bullet journal it isn’t so much the expression of the information, but the information itself. You bought book Z at your local bookstore on February 3. You completed Y project on March 12. That kind of thing. With a spark file, it seems to me, the expression of the idea is almost as important as the idea itself. Or, to put this another way, recording the idea will instant start to change the idea, and you will want room to be able to explore those changes. It might take two sentences, it might take a whole page. And when you review your ideas months later you will want to be able to append thoughts about that idea.

While a bullet journal could serve as the staging point for a spark file, where you make a quick note of something you want to write down in more detail later, you likely would never move information from the spark file to your bullet journal, unless it was a note to follow-up on an idea.

Johnson says his current spark file is over 50 pages (as of two years ago). So the spark file needs to be able to grow organically. I don’t flatter myself that I have that many ideas floating around in my head or ever will, but do wonder if I would have more if I had a more systematic way of non-critically capturing my “hunches.” Is a spark file something that would work for me? The only way to find out, I think, is give it a go.

And that leads to the next question: What’s the best way for ME to implement this concept?

From Johnson’s description, I can see three essential attributes of an effective spark file:

  • I must be able to access it for both reading and writing from anywhere, at any time.
  • Capturing my thoughts and ideas must be quick and easy, because any road bumps might make me decide to check my e-mail instead of writing down that “hunch.”
  • I must be able to read the entire set of hunches from start to finish in one window. But does this mean it needs to be a single document like Johnson uses? Or can it be composed in an application that provides concatenation of smaller documents into a longer one for reading?

One more essential attribute can be inferred from Johnson’s description, though he does not make it explicit. Regardless, it certainly is important to me. And that is, writing and editing needs to be easy, because I find that once I start to write down an idea from my head, that idea instantly begins to morph into something different. To allow myself the ability to explore this evolution, I have to be able to write in a nimble editor, one that makes it easy for me to re-write as I go. This may sound like a no-brainer, but it is nevertheless important for me to make this a requirement, as it will impact the tools I choose to use to keep my spark file. For example, it is one reason why a paper notebook would not work for me, as I am a terrible writer and editor with pen and paper.

As I first started thinking about creating my own spark file, I also began considering options for how to manage it. I rejected hierarchical free-form databases like DevonThink or UltraRecall because the information stored in those applications is too atomized. While those apps may work for others who want a place to store their ideas, they are not in keeping with the major principle as suggested by Steven Johnson of providing a single, readable view of all your hunches.

But does that mean only a single document will work? Not necessarily. It occurred to me that the remarkable writing application Scrivener, could be an ideal environment for keeping a record of hunches. As I envision it, I would create a spark file project and then add individual documents for each “hunch.” There are a lot of reasons Scrivener would be an excellent application to use for this purpose:

  • It’s a great writing environment, in which it is easy to compose and edit text.
  • There are many ways to add meta data to your hunches, if you want to do so. The date you create an entry is automatically recorded for instance. You can also add a synopsis, or annotations, and lots more. That seems useful.
  • You can easily export your entire spark file as a single document in many standard formats, so you are not locked in to Scrivener, and you can make your spark file portable.
  • You can use the scrivenings view, which concatenates your entries into a single window that is virtually indistinguishable from a single document.
  • You can save your spark file project in Dropbox so it is accessible on all your computers. Scrivener is available for both the Mac and Windows platforms.
  • If you want to add information to any of the hunches in your spark file, you can either append them to the original document or add supporting documents, which can appear as sub-documents to the original.
  • If an idea looks like it will blossom, you can easily move it to its own Scrivener file, where you can focus on nurturing it.

There are, of course, a few reasons why Scrivener might not be a good choice for maintaining a spark file. First, there is no current version for mobile apps. While this may be easily overcome using a quick note capture app with easy import into a Scrivener file, it does add a layer of complexity that works against the whole concept of ease and speed. The good news is that an iPad version of Scrivener is in the works and should be available soon.

A bigger issue for me is that in order to share a file among computers via Dropbox, you need to get into the habit of closing the file once you are done with it, as having the same file open on more than one computer currently can create problems. This, in fact, is the issue that has made me decide that Scrivener won’t work for me at this time. I know myself, and if I have to re-open a file in order to record a half-baked idea, I’m probably going to check my Twitter feed first and then… what was that idea again?

So I’m back to square one, which is doing just what Johnson does and having a single document. I can keep it in Dropbox for access from any of my devices. It should be in a standard format. Plain text or a Word document. I’m inclined to choose plain text, as there are more good options on the iPad for opening and editing that format. Okay. Now that I have limited my options to this, it is time to start my spark file and let the genius begin. Or something like that.

And maybe one day Scrivener will solve the problem of synchronizing among various computers using Dropbox.

*Please forgive the incestuousness of my referring to a blog post that refers to one of my blog posts; that’s how I was made aware of it in the first place.

Quick bullet journal update

If I needed any proof that I was really committed to bullet journaling it has come in the form of a coffee mishap. About four weeks ago I managed to knock over my cup. I caught it before too much of the dark liquid spilled, but some of it managed to splash into the back pocket of my Tom Bihn Ristretto bag, the compartment where I stashed my Moleskine bullet journal. I sopped up the wayward joe, but enough soaked into the top to give a light brown tint and a slight wave to the upper ends of the pages… you know, how books get when they’ve been wet and then dried.

Anyway, this kind of accident would have normally sent me scurrying for a new notebook and a fresh start on clean, immaculate pages. But I was not prepared to put aside the information in my journal, so instead I decided to treat the stains as part of the historical record I was keeping in the pages of my notebook, just perhaps a little more graphic than my usual scrawling. Much to my surprise, I’ve been able to ignore the damage and have continued to use my notebook as if nothing had happened. I am now fully convinced that I am now a dedicated bullet journalist!

Bullet Journal update

I wrote about adopting the bullet journal approach to capturing information in a previous post. I’ve now been using my bullet journal for over a month and it seems like a good time for an update.

I am finding it way more fun and productive than I expected I would. Also, my skepticism about keeping my bullet journal in a paper notebook has gone away. The notebook is working just fine. Of course, I use the notebook in conjunction with computer and iOS apps, which I’ll write more about in another post. In the meantime, I wanted to share a few ways in which my notebook may deviate from others.

The left page and right page on each spread in my bullet journal serve different purposes.

The left page and right page on each spread in my bullet journal serve different purposes.

I split the spreads in my notebook. The right page is for rapid logging (the main bullet journal technique). Here I add the date, then log items per the bullet journal method. The only small adjustment I make is to use a back slash to indicate notes that I have pushed into my computer/iPad flow. I may make a note as to which app the information is in, so that I know where to look in the future.

The left page I initially leave blank. Then I use it to annotate my bullet items when more information is called for. If I don’t need to add further information, I can use a blank left page (or even a blank space on a partially filled left page) for creating undated lists, or adding any information that suits my fancy. For instance, the first left-hand page in my notebook is where I started my project list. After that is filled up (and it almost is), I’ll skip ahead to the next blank left hand page, forwarding the uncompleted projects to the new page. I’ll mark this page for quick reference with a removable tab.

I’m keeping my index in the back of the notebook, marked with another removable tab. I’ve decided not to use my bullet journal as a calendar, as I have a wonderful iOS application for that.

I’ve rounded out my notebook with a Quiver pen holder in which I keep a black- and red-ink Pilot Precise V5 extra fine pens, though I have yet to use the red pen. So far, this system is working quite nicely.

In a future post I will be describing how I add computer and iPad apps to the work flow.

Happy New Year!

Update: I’ve written about how I am using Tinderbox as my digital bullet journal.

Bullet Journaling

I’ve been intrigued by Bullet Journaling since I first heard about it last August. The person who conceived of the system, Ryder Carroll, explains it very well on the web site, so I won’t try to give a full run down here. Essentially Bullet Journaling is a system for keeping track of your daily tasks and notes using a pen and notebook. If you haven’t seen it in action you’re probably thinking, “Yeah, that’s a diary, moron.” Well it is a little more and a little less than that. At its heart is a concept called “rapid logging,” in which you record brief bits of data as they come to you. Each entry is a short bullet item, where you lead the note with a simple symbol that signifies if the item is an event (an open circle), a task (a check box) or a note (small, solid bullet). Additional symbols can be used to mark an item as important, as requiring further inquiry, etc… If you are trying to implement Carroll’s system completely, you also add calendars and other collections of information.

There has been a flurry of interest in Bullet Journaling, and searching Google will reveal quite a few commentaries on the system. I suspect part of the appeal simply comes from Carroll’s wonderful presentation of the concept. But Bullet Journaling does have some advantages that appeal to me:

  • Speed. Pulling out a notebook and making a short note is faster for me than trying to enter that same information in a digital device at the time the information lands in my lap. If I don’t make the note at that time, then I’ll probably forget to do it.
  • Off the grid. In a time when there is so much uncertainty about the security and privacy of online information, it is appealing to have a system that does not rely at all on “the cloud.”
  • Independence. I like the idea of not having to rely upon software, computer, or cloud companies. Nor is the system dependent upon battery life, or access to wifi.
  • Simplicity. There’s not a lot to remember, just three little symbols, and those symbols provide significant meta-data about the information, as well as a quick way to track the status.
  • Integrated. Lists include notes, tasks and events in one integrated view.
  • Flexibility. There is nothing rigid about Bullet Journaling. Carroll makes it clear that you should use the parts you like, change or discard the parts you do not like. “I hope that you take the ideas presented here and apply/adapt them so they work best for you.”

But there are drawbacks to Bullet Journaling. The ones that seem most crucial to me are the following:

  • Repetitious. As Carroll describes his system, it requires a great deal of copying of notes from one location in the notebook to another. This is probably good practice, as it helps you to not lose track of these details. In fact, it is essential in a system that doesn’t have mechanisms to remind you of these details. But I know that I’d find this tedious, and would not do it consistently.
  • No backup. Lose your notebook, you lose your data.
  • No export. To use the information you’ve gathered, you need to transcribe it into a computer. This is no big deal with short notes, but if you’ve outlined a plan, or made longer notes, this can become inefficient.
  • No search. With Bullet Journaling, you’re supposed to create an index page, where you log the locations of your information in your notebook so that you can find it when you need it. But this is clearly ineffective for real data mining, as all information falls into more than one category. Also it is one more piece of extra work, which kind of defeats the whole “rapid logging” concept.
  • Insufficient calendar. The calendar that Carroll proposes for his system is intended as a method for tracking activity, rather than as a way to manage a busy schedule. Consequently, you still need to keep a separate calendar, which eats away at the efficiency of the “system.”

Some people will find keeping a Bullet Journal liberating and effective. Others will miss all they computing power they’ve given up for this simplicity. I fall somewhere in between, I think. I want to see if I can leverage the best aspects of the system, while “fixing” the disadvantages.

Clearly, some of the cons flow directly from the pros, as in the “off-the-grid” but “no backup” dilemma. I can’t expect to have all the advantages of Bullet Journaling and none of the disadvantages. Where Bullet Journaling really excels, in my opinion, is in the intake of information. It is fast. It is reliable. It is simple. It is flexible.

So, Bullet Journaling is a good front end to an information management system. Does it have to actually happen with pen and paper? Can an app work for this front end? I’m thinking, maybe. Of course, using an app destroys the “independence” and “off-the-grid” aspects of the Bullet Journal system. I don’t think that can be helped, not for me. Because all of the disadvantages of the system that I’ve named make it a non-starter for me. If I’m going to get any benefit from the system, I have to solve those.

I believe I have found a compromise that will work, but before I report on that, I need to use it for a week or two. Stay tuned.

Update: I’ve written further about my bullet journal here.